tv History Bookshelf CSPAN April 12, 2015 8:01am-8:49am EDT
-- 45 minutes. s.c. gwynne: hello. thank you for coming by one to talk this afternoon how i came to this book or how the book came to me which sometimes is a simultaneous event. how a connecticut yankee public career in journalism and failed attempts at fiction suddenly decides he wants to be a historian. but not only that he wants to write about comanches and the great plains which is as far from connecticut as the frozen moons of jupiter. i will not bore you with the details of my literary past but to put it as briefly as possible i had my little epiphany in the spring of 1970. i had just been admitted to princeton university and i was traveling there for a weekend where you see if you want to go there. it was a glorious day in america.
-- day in may. just like this morning and the spring was in full bloom. i had taken a train and the last leg was on a smaller train which was the princeton to princeton junction that took the right to the campus. i happen to be reading of book by f. scott fitzgerald called "this side of paradise." about life there princeton in it is absolutely a magical book for me. i cannot even read two smell. -- cannot read even two paragraphs now. but at the time it was magical i finished it just as the train pulled into the station . princeton is as cute as a button.
finishing just as the train pulls then and i walk up to the campus and i remember thinking there is absolutely nothing in the world that i would rather do than to write like scott fitzgerald. it was all downhill from there. for the next 15 years i wrote a bunch of fiction and publish some of it, got a graduate fellowship: call mom -- fellowship, but none of what i did was much good unfortunately. not great stuff. i worked, i had jobs was a banker and a teacher but all the while i persisted to see myself as a writer i would go home at night and read by gertrude stein i did better henry james or whatever was doing. and still i was aware at some level as time went buy i was not exactly living in paris sipping champagne and i was aware of that it was not happening for me.
anyway, at some point it occurred to me that i actually couldn't make a living by writing -- actually couldn't make a living by writing -- actually codeuld make your living by writing so i became a reporter in my early '30's. if i got better and better at nonfiction that dream slowly went away everything now is black and white at my age. it is hard for me to understand myself were things were not so absolute where you could be an international banker or a writer. the fiction dream went away then in one glorious, spectacular cataclysm which was a 701 novel. -- 701 novel -- 700 word novel. the main effect was to cause my agent in new york not to return my phone calls. then it was gone and it was a
cathartic experience. it did not happen that long ago but it had to be done and we all realize what we cannot do. and that is something that i can't do. i don't think of myself as a failed novelist. i don't care. i do not even read fiction much anymore. but here is the difference. it comes down to the legendary blank page that the writer sees. that blank page for a fiction writer is an absolutely astonishing thing. on that blank page there's no rules. it could be about iran or mars or new jersey horrible will be or a martian death the more it -- meritor lifer birth. what am i supposed to do? what am i going to put there? i don't know. the differences with nonfiction -- this applies to my journalism
as well as my history it is palpable or real, something very real that you hang onto minstar onto. with the premise of the real. -- owned two. with the promise of the real. that is my preamble. so i and up in austin, texas as executive editor of a magazine called "texas monthly." now i know what to do and if there in texas the comanche nonsense started. when i told my journalist friends a few years ago i was writing the history of the comanches i mainly got a lot like stairs. you can see the wheels turning in their tiny trauma news driven -- tiny, news driven brains to figure out the angle. is there an indian nation health
care. no, no, no just a dusty history something that happened 300 years ago and say that is great. [laughter] s.c. gwynne:we cannot wait to read it. meaning good luck jack. i frankly do not care. i wanted to do well and we should all do things that we want to do. the fact is a lot of us write books but very few are interested in jumping back into history partly because, not to run them down but they have the attention span of an act. gosh ok matt. -- over and that =-- of a gnat. partly because the obvious lack of qualification. having a thesis ridden in in 1871 it is at the library although what i hear you can check your thesis out in the princeton library so my plan is
to go check it out and take it somewhere and burn it. but i have not done that yet. and anyway, so i am just not this guy. i am not a historian not sitting in oklahoma university mulling over native american history so . so why does a reporter become interested something that happened in the faraway past? what got me interested in the first place and something i will call generational memory which i will explain in a minute. i grew up in connecticut in massachusetts part of the country were native american tribes were subdued a long time ago. we are talking about the 1600s. i was aware of the indians on cape cod and i even played the summer with some of them. the deceased -- they ceased to exist as the free tribe 100 years before my ancestors got
off the boat and nobody really knew about the mohegans or at all a consequence because too much time had intervened. nobody had a conceivable memory of them. but in texas where i moved as the "time" magazine bureau chief in 1994, the whole system of the frontier and native americans was radically different. i never would have written this book or have gone near its out i happens not to move to texas. one of those strange circumstances that happens when you move. in texas it was part of my job to travel the state and write the stories for "time" magazine and then "texas monthly." i met a lot of people who told about the comanche. the lady who sat next to me at texas monthly had both of her
great grandparents were killed and a comanche raid. i knew my great grandparents , somebody's grandfather had done business with them and there's a sense of the immediacy of the frontier. and often in my travels, and sometimes it is the weird mixing of legend and history i am doing -- history. i am up there doing a story about lakota who make these baseball or softball gloves and the town is struggling. i go up to do the lakota story and i was sitting at a bar with an old guy who told me about this battle that took place right there with the spanish and the comanches. i have no idea what he is talking about. what he was talking about is the
end of spanish power in the new world. it was the battle of spanish fort where the comanches rolled the spanish back. that is a substantial event. as the aztecs may be able to tell you. so kind of it was stories and things like that and here i am traveling around the state. for many things. one of the reasons of courses -- reasons of course for the immediacy of the frontier is the comanches, the last of them surrendered in 1785 and then there was jostling on and off the reservation, things happening into the 20th century. the frontier was an immediate thing. and of course the tribe that was featured in most of the stories -- there were a lot of apaches and wichita and tribes like that
-- but the tribe's that you heard about were comanches. i don't know about you but in my upbringing comanches were something or a word that occurred in the john wayne movie s, always a code word for danger. that is the comanche arrow. always like that. you did not know why the comanches were bad. i did not know anything else about them. there was those kind of remembering of the past going on in texas that was interesting that got me interested in story. but what got me interested heard article you get off was not justice remembering of the past, it was also forgetting -- interested in this article was
not just the remembering of the past, it was also forgetting. simultaneous and contradictory revelation. although they were playing off almost everybody else had forgotten the average texan talk about the fastest-growing state 500,000 people per year coming and coming from illinois and mexico they don't know these things. my daughter did not know these things. she grew up in texas and she is 19. so you had, and this is interesting because in 1940 i would venture to say every single schoolchild in the state of texas new the story of parker and the rescue and the fact that her son became the last and the greatest chief of the comanches. talk to a texan above a certain age they could tell you those things. i will go you one other story and this is a good one. -- i will tell you another story and this is a good one. if you have read my book one of my great discoveries was a guy named jack hayes john coffee case. the original and greatest ranger.
i was arguing he was one of the greatest indian fighter one of the greatest commanders america ever produced. the adapted comanche -- he adopted comanche war techniques that were for that had never existed before later used with brutal effectiveness with the war in mexico. he adopted a failed invention by a man named sam been can -- stand in the connecticut and it was said before jack came into the american west, came into texas, everybody came on foot lugging the rifle but after him they came on horseback carrying six guns. i am leading up to something here because i am trying to describe this process of remembering and forgetting.
jack hayes seem to be completely forgot them in texas. just south of austin there is a county named hays county and inside of hays county there is a high-school called hayes high school, named after the greatest ranger, and by the way in a state that absolutely treasures rangers the texas rangers are , mythical. would you suppose in the state that the mascot of the high school team would be the rangers? no. they are the rebels. [laughter] s.c. gwynne: i have no problem with rebels accept that jack -- except that jack hayes left texas to become the first sheriff of san francisco during the gold rush. he is not a rebel, he is a ranger. nobody in hays county knows who
he is. no one in san antonio where he invented to the six shooter knows who he is. this was going on and hear was the a great opportunity i saw as a writer because i am a relatively smart guy and even living in texas i did not know who they were. did you ever hear of geronimo? everybody heard of him. yes. hear of custer? yes. hear of mackenzie the actual greatest indian fighter on the frontier? never heard of that. as you ever heard of john coffee hayes who should be a household word like davy crockett but he is not? and no. you can just keep going. the fact is for me as a writer i could go sell a book in new york to people not only to an editor who gives me money, which they do but i could sell to a country
that had never heard of these guys. what it a cool thing. the answer to why, there were books done about these but they tended to be bottled up, prisoners of their region. texas a&m, 700 copies go to schools and libraries and the low distribution so i saw my opportunity. i took it. and as it turns out the comanche story is just one of the great stories and what i love about it as much as anything else is it is the best kind of a school you can get from the most beloved history professor. it teaches, it uses a vehicle the comanche tribe which is very cool in itself, but to teach you how the west was won. it was not one by the white people until it was lost by the comanches.
they constituted an incredible physical barrier to everything that happened in the west the mexicans and texans and americans and spanish and everybody else. and determined what happened around them. they were, they occupied to the southern plains, 250,000 square miles. they basically in a sense held up themselves the entire foreword progress of the american empire put before that -- american empire. before that they blocked the northward expansion of america . partly the reason is the spanish empire had provided them with an astonishing piece of technology known as the horse. it was the attempt to move west . turns out the spanish made the mistake of harming the comanche enemy. texas exist because of comanche's. what does it exist? here is what happened. the mexicans needed to stabilize the northern border. they own texas at this point.
one way to do that the israelis have discovered is you settle it and put people there. the more you settle the more it stabilized and if your purpose is to control it that is what you do. texas did not want to do there because there were comanche's but the red next lee scott irish red head people like davy crockett, they had no problem coming in to settle in this land. the grand plan of mexico, it backfired because the texans wanted independence after a little battle at the alamo they got it. so this is not in fact the only reason that texas happened but in part it was a misguided attempt to stop the comanche. that is a good way to tell history to somebody who does not
so many things, again history to somebody who does not -- that is a good way to tell history to somebody who does not know the history of texas. so many other things, the rangers are a product and finally with the 40 year war just true of line from san antonio through fort worth that is where the frontiers at 40 years. nothing even remotely similar happened with any other native american war or tribe. i call them the most powerful tribe in american history and people asked me if somehow the comanches met the western sioux in who would win? or if they comanche fought a choctaw. there is actually a show with a computer pits a mongolia and against the historical union but even though they are fabulous warriors but they mean the power to influence the course of history. and the tribe, absolutely no
drive have such a determinant of fact -- tried had such a determinant effect -- btribe had such a determinant effect on what happened in north america. the way the book works, only one hand you have the big picture of the rise and fall of the comanches which is interesting because of their great power. the other side of it is this rather more intimate and small story of the parker family, a nine-year-old girl gets taken in this raid. that is the way my book is organized, alternating chapters, big pictures and then the parker family. and then they run together.
the organizing event of the book is this raid in 1836. it is one of those small moments in history, the raid were cynthia parker is taken, it is one of the small moments in history that in retrospect has astonishingly large historical significance. that was the same year texas one -- won its independence. it was the year of the parker family had built a stockade 90 miles south of texas. we were still far out on the comanche frontier it was almost ridiculous. you wonder how they could bring children. they were way out beyond almost anybody else on the frontier. and in fact one thing to keep in mind if you are thinking about how the american west was settled, people sometimes think there was a sweep across that
went north to south along a surge in parallel. it was not. -- certain parallel. it was not. it was all south. the human frontier was in texas nothing going on up north. the great clash was down in the south. five people were killed others were wounded five captives women and children one was cynthia anne parker. in most ways this was a routine comanche raid, they have been doing this against the spanish and anybody else many, many years. but in historical terms it was a defining moment and one of the most famous moments of the frontier. there were two reasons for this. it marked the start of the first, longest and most brutal war between americans and a single native tribe. also because it involved the woman who was to be the most famous as a captive. it took place precisely at the point where the westward booming
american empire -- this is the other thing that the parkers did not realize -- you have this enormous american empire moving west. meeting this 250,000 square mile solve comanche empire -- south comanche empire. it is only in retrospect, nobody could see it at the time, but it was right there. that is where the parker's build the house. if they had any idea that is what they we're doing i am sure they never would have done it. why was that empire there? the reason that empire was there is a result of 150 years of sustained combat with one goal . the goal was the south plains. why? the most militarily dominant tribe in america, who had mastered the horse like no other tribe, because that is where the
buffalo were. over 150 years the comanche's essentially use their unbelievable mastery of the course to challenge as they went south, they nearly exterminated the apaches, to challenge as they went south, eventually gaining what they wanted which was the south plains which is where the buffalo were. where the buffalo were. that is where the parker's plucked that little house right on the edge of that. pretty good idea. this is where they built the frontier paradise and the chain of events, i am sorry. there is one more thing that is really interesting about where they put the house. if to look at america way back when, if you look at it before columbus basically the entire east coast was one dense grimm brothers forest. it was dense. dense. and that's what -- that swept from the east coast about the 98th meridian.
right through the middle of texas right from san antonio in dallas. and essentially this bizarre thing happened. the culture of the east was the culture of the woods, based on timber, land, water. when you got past the tree-lined this is a terrifying moment. no trees to build houses. no water. this house is right at the edge of this moment this physical geographical moment where the lead changed and that was there, too. that is where they built the house. we haven't narrated in the book, the captivity of cynthia -- we have it narrated in the book, the captivity of cynthia parker, she did not return, she was
famous as the white squad that were not returned. her oldest son was the greatest comanche warrior of his age and i will not go into details but i want to tell you a great story about quanah. i consider quanah parker one of the most extraordinary people of the 14th century, one of the most formidable warriors. that is saying something. he was a brilliant field general, never defeated by whites in battle. led the last of the comanche into the terrible dying days of 1875 and the buffalo had all been killed after all the other tribes have surrendered. after his surrender, moved to the comanche reservation and transformed himself in oklahoma the way that his mother had. his mother had adapted brilliantly to the comanche culture, and not one of parker
-- now parker adapted to the white culture. he went from this fierce plains warrior to the most successful influential indian of the period and controlled a small cattle empire, outfoxed the white man to the leasing games in a friend of to the roosevelt and accumulated a large fortune of almost all of which he gave away to help his fellow comanche's. the year is 1871. ok, keep in mind this is 35 years after the first battles of the comanche. the frontier was still shockingly where it had been. it was not moving. keep in mind that this is after the civil war now and the men who were running america are the grim warriors who have destroyed the south. the president is ulysses s. grant and the chief of the army's is william tecumseh
sherman and the chief of the army in the west is phil sheridan. all of these names will be familiar down here. and these are the men who were running things. 1871, they unleashed the greatest war machine in american history. i am sorry, world history, nothing even close to it. looking at this tribe that was sitting there holding up everything. in 1871, of these guys said, that is it. one of the reasons the comanches were still there as i point out is the civil war took the attention away from the planes. in 1871 that attention was no longer focused on the war or reconstruction but now we could at least look to see what we will do about the comanche problem. quanah parker was 21 years old at the time, the leader of the most remote and most hostile bands in the panhandle by low
-- panhandle by lovett, and amarillo. they were an amazing bunch. one of the reasons they were in power because they had kept away from the white man, contracted very few of the diseases. 15,000 horses, they traded with men who operated out of new mexico. use even though you see them in movies, they were kind of a -- you see them in the movies, they were kind of a rough bunch. so grant and sherman decide they have had enough so they send colonel mackenzie down, and he
is career -- and his career parallels custer. so they send mackenzie 600 bluecoats ride out and they will get the comanches and the target is the village, quanah parker has a village. we don't know exactly how big the village was but we think 200 tepees. it was the village was when the and children and dogs and cattle and horses. and what happened was actually rather astonishing. parker gave mackenzie the most extraordinary lesson in plains warfare. the indians were vastly outnumbered. they have a breach loading repeating rifles. the comanche's if they had anything at all it was smooth bore muskets but mostly bows and arrows. let me see if i can briefly describe to you what this bottle was. it was -- this battle was.
it was called the battle of blenko canyon. the bluecoats they're pretty tough people. there were not complete idiots . they are playing cat and mouse where quanah parker stampedes forth, the bluecoats calgary move forward and locate the village and they will move on the village. they march to where the villages but it is gone. so they send the scouts out to figure out where it was. what has happened is they get to a point where they realize all of the crisscrossing lines. if you use a horse travois, that is what it is and it is long poles on the back of a horse so they could carry things because they did not have wheels. as a large group of migrating comanches move they have
parallel lines in the sand so suddenly all of the lines go crazy then the village disappears and then they realize the village has doubled back and it is now behind them. remember, 200 lodges. we don't know how many people with a bunch of warriors. they are furious they have to give up the next day now they will just go get the village and they are mad. by the time to get there, now the village disappears again and they realize they are up the steep cliff that rises between 200 and 1000 feet from one claim to another, the village disappears up the rock. the soldiers do with great difficulty up the top of the rock, they follow the village and it is not going down. the frack it again and -- they track it again and then lose it.
it sounds like i am making this up, this is an account by a medal of honor winner who hated quanah parker but admired what he did. the village disappears yet again, it goes up the cap rock and they have him. the soldiers are back up to the top of the rock and this is where the planes go to flat oceanic. now they can see the indians out there getting away. just like on cue, suddenly this howling northern comes down. the northern is a window that kimberly be followed texas where the temperature drops 50 or 60 degrees in an hour. -- the northern is a wind that can blow through texas where the temperature drops 50 or 60 degrees in an hour. into this howling gail quannah
leads his people off and mackenzie and his men are forced to hunker down. i did not go into the details of this but essentially quanah got away. one of the key things about plains warfare was escape. there are few instances in history where a commander takes a village into the field against his adversary and wins. that is the kind of commander that quanah was, he was quite brilliant and he escaped to fight another day. he would not surrender until he led the last of the starving comanches to the reservation in 1875 after everyone of the food sources had been killed. that is all i wanted to say tonight. i would be happy to -- do we have time for questions?
sorry? this mic. i would be happy to answer questions. >> [indiscernible] s.c. gwynne: that was her cousin, rachel parker palmer. >> do you have access to it? s.c. gwynne: rachel -- this is one of the great things you have , regional plumbers diary. a captive taken for many months on the planes. we get a look at comanches that is extraordinary. i held the original. yes, i do not know how many libraries around here but in texas the rare book collections will have it.
i could not get it in most main libraries but in the rare book collections. >> your descriptives of the comanche ability to fight on horses was absolutely fascinating. there are a few statistics there on how fast they could fire and arrow -- an arrow, pretty astonishing. those who have not read the book could be interested in that. s.c. gwynne: you are talking about the comanche's amazing abilities with horse. the first time americans saw that, there was an exhibition that ran into them. they simply could not believe what they were looking at.
there are people today who can do what they did where they have a leather thong and dip down on the side of the horse so if they were riding you could not sue them. they could also fire under the neck -- could not see them. liquid fire under the neck of the horse and hit things at full gallop -- they could fire under the neck of the horse and hit things at full gallop. they did this thing that people had not seen before where they would do things like chase horses, over a long period, a large piece of ground. they would let the horses come right up to the water and right before the horses got to drink --wolves do this to caribou --
the horses were constantly on the road and not able to drink so eventually they stopped. we see the comanches, they tried to get a rope on the horse and they get up to the horse and this thing is in a lather and they take the nostrils and their mouse over the nostril and blow into the nostril of the horse and this would -- put their mouth over the austral and blow into the nostril of the horse and this would gentle the horse. they understood about gelding and all of that stuff. it was, as much as anything, the comanches were, a very small tribe that lived in the mountains of wyoming, what is now wyoming. not a particularly significant tribe. something happened in the 17th
century and the humor is this correct -- they emerged as this powerful force by virtue of the horses. >> [indiscernible] s.c. gwynne: there are about 1400 of them registered in the nation now. i am sorry, 14,000. of them, 9000 live close to the old homelands which is lots in, oklahoma -- lawston oklahoma. have a couple of casinos now. i think they do ok with the casinos but they are rustling with the same things -- wrestling with the same things that other tribes are rustling wi -- wrestling with. i had the opportunity, i do book
talks on the plains and i had comanches come to it. one woman stood up and said, what do the comanches think about your book? to answer that question, a lot of them like it and some of them do not. there are things that i tell about quanah's father's death that goes against comanche history, i say that in the book. on the whole the reception was good. >> [indiscernible] s.c. gwynne: actually that is a very good question. how many people that i interviewed for the book? the answer is none. there were no living people that could inform what happened back then. what i had was in the 1930's
very thankfully there were two or three different projects where people recorded comanche from the old days, the pre-reservation period. they did at the graphic studies. that is what -- they did e thnographic studies. it would be like interviewing me about my grandfather's experiences in world war ii. last year i interviewed a lot of chickasaws and one of my goals is to interview current date comanches. yes, sir. >> [indiscernible] in the first part of the book, a lot of the comanches are
enacting retribution for the past, prior to the horse's introduction. who'd you elaborate on how much was organized retribution and how much -- could you elaborate on how much was organized retribution and how much was to get land? s.c. gwynne: who what extent were very revenge raids and to what extent it was a part of plains warfare. the plains indians were warlike groups and they fought, that is what they did. when somebody would conduct, the arapahos would conduct a raid, the comanches would go back, it went both ways. there were raids meant to get horses and there were leads that were -- raids that were revenge
raids. it was how it worked, it was part of the deal. the same revenge was exacted on whites later. adobe walls, the last spasm of power that one of parker led -- quanah parker led was in part because of the death of his father. the comanches were very brutal, so were all plains indians so were all native americans in terms of treatment of captives. if you are a historian in the field you have to come to terms with that because it happened. perhaps i was a little naive when i started writing the book but i remember somebody was interviewing me on the radio after my book first came out and said did you have to stop and
take a deep breath before you sat down and wrote a complete revisionist history of native americans? and i am sitting there, thinking fast, complete revisionist history? what you meant was, and i have gotten the court -- what he meant was, and i have gotten the question since then, there was a notion that was popular particularly in the 60's, and the best example would be a book called "bury my heart at wounded me" but there were others, the impression was that the indians were the gentle and spiritual people fundamentally decent people who were steamrolled by this culture that broke trees and destroyed them and massacred them. you look at the comanches, that is not true. the comanches were enormously
powerful. or they victimized? -- were they victimized? yes they were. but that is not fundamentally who they were. i was not making a political point, what i found is that they were brutal and warlike and held their own. that particular view is overly simplistic because even the tribes from the southeast, if you go back to the origins they were enormously powerful and warlike and noble in their own way. i have no political, i was not smart enough to have a political agenda. anybody else? thank you all for coming. i have enjoyed this. [applause] >> joined american history tv this coming tuesday for live coverage marking the 150th
anniversary of president lincoln's assassination. on april 14, 1865, actor john wilkes booth shot abraham lincoln at the ford theater. the president was carried across 10th street to the peterson house where he died the next morning. we will be live from penn street on tuesday night where ford theater will re-create the overnight vigil. over 150 living historians will keep a candlelight watch and we will hear first-person accounts including reports from eyewitnesses and the medical updates on the president's condition. president lincoln's assassination, 150 years later tuesday night, april 14, beginning at 8:00 p.m. eastern. and on sunday, april 19.
>> this year, c-span is touring cities across the country. the look at our recent visit to tolstoy, oklahoma. -- next, a look at our recent visit to. , -- to tulsa oklahoma. ted reeds: tulsa was a much sleep your time today than it was during the oil boom. with the discovery of oil just north of here and later to the west, tulsa overnight was transformed from this sleepy indian outpost with a sprinkling of settlers into overnight what i refer to as little arabia. many came from the edges or within large american cities. philadelphia, chicago, new york, pittsburgh.